The myth as a means to access the world – Part 1

"Oh, that's just a myth!" This pejorative statement means in our everyday language that it is a lie, a fake, a false idea or illusion. Yet this ancient Greek term for ‘word, speech, tale’ originally stood for the exact opposite. A myth was a world explanation of eternal, i.e. collective and always valid truths.

The myth as a means to access the world – Part 1

A mysterious order

A myth was a world explanation of eternal, i.e. collective and always valid truths. While observing the fixed stars and the regular movements of the planets (in German ‘Wanderer’), one recognised a mysterious order (in Greek: cosmos). The shamanic storytellers saw the cause of life’s events in the work of higher beings or powers of fate. The myth gave orientation (Orient from Latin sol oriens = where the sun rises and the light returns) in a hostile and chaotic world. It explained (enlightened) the Eternal Questions about our origins, the meaning of life, the right way to live and the mystery of death. The myth was directly connected to the rite and omnipresent because the gods were among the people. Today we can no longer comprehend this perception of the world, this being integrated into a great whole, but can only guess at it. In the interpretation of the Romantics, looking attests to a contemplative sensory experience that was directly connected to the numinous – the efficacy of myth.

What fundamentally distinguishes myth from other models of knowledge are its manifold functions, both individual and collective. It is always received emotionally, mostly unconsciously. What is irresistible for us is that myth dispenses with our rational comprehension. We can feel that everything makes sense, even if it is not comprehensible to us. This feeling strengthens, supports, affirms and provides support for a community and at the same time conveys identity to the individual.

The four functions of the myth

Myth has fulfilled the following four functions for thousands of years:

Sociologically, it conveys an ethical order in the social interaction of a community. Rules of living together are explained with a mythological background (external perception).

Psychologically, it provides orientation and meaning in crises, transitional phases and times of change. It helps to cope with them individually (inner perception and their expression).

Cosmologically, it connects the human environment with his spirituality (reflection).

Mystically, it brings the human being into a systemic relationship of his consciousness with the mystery of the cosmos (transformation).

This phenomenon is therefore a self- and community-forming transformation process that is hidden in myth. Joseph Campbell remarks: “Mythology is not an ideology. It is not designed by the brain, but experienced by the heart.”

How the logos replaced the myth

The search for the primordial substance of the world began with the pre-Socratics. For Heraclitus, this consisted of fire, the driving force from which the logos is ordered and animated, which in turn permeates the cosmos. The logos, still used by Homer as a synonym for myth, replaced the myth when the rational mind began to break the world down into its component parts. Doubting the gods, viewing them as anthropomorphic principles, Plato conceived of myth as a fabricated, even lying, story and logos as an explanation or representation. According to his dialogue Theaetetus, only that which is found within the logos, i.e. which is explicable, can be the object of knowledge. Accordingly, it was only through the sharper definition of the logos that myth became its antithesis.

With the triumph of Christianity, the concept was further discredited as the overcome superstition of the old religions, which were regarded as inferior and despised as competition. The tremendous arrogance of Western culture, which first saw itself as guided by the ‘only true’ faith and then defined scientific knowledge as the correct path of human development, abolished the previous definition of myth. The humanism of Renaissance separated myth from religion; Descartes mechanised the miracle of life – from the 18th century onwards, the only thing that mattered was what actually happens.

Is the question really: myth or reality? Logic sees only an either-or, but the spiritual approach allows for a both-and.

The disenchanted reality

Poets and philosophers such as Hölderlin, Schelling or Novalis, in their rapturous enchantment and longing for the ancient world, recognised that we have lost Arcadia for good as a result of the disenchanted rationality of the Enlightenment and that this loss is felt by man as a great emptiness. But it was only the Enlightenment that made the step towards the mature human being possible who must take responsibility for his own life. Before that, it was determined as a plaything of the gods – but man paid a high price for this freedom. He forgot to understand himself as symbiotically integrated into nature and exploited it as a resource. The ancient Greeks called this ‘hubris’.

With the emergence of the new sciences at the beginning of the 20th century, such as ethnology or psychoanalysis, myth regained importance as an object of research. Shortly after Nietzsche’s statement that we ourselves had killed God, the myth was instrumentalised for an inhuman ideology, unleashing its full archaic force. National Socialism made it clear that the myth always works in us and through us.

The more unsettled, uncertain and unmanageable a time, the more man longs for emotional connection with a superior order. In the arbitrariness of postmodernity, the possibility of this is hardly offered to him socially any more. Everything around us seems to be changing faster and faster, even dissolving.

The fact that we are currently in a time of comprehensive transformation is now openly before us. The worldwide threat of the Corona virus has the effect of unveiling our way of life – the very meaning of the term apocalypse.

Corona, from which our crown is derived as a symbol of rulership par excellence, is in origin the solar wreath, which is already found in gods of light such as Helios or Sol invictus, with whom emperors and kings compared themselves. Later, the nimbus developed from it as a halo. To protect ourselves from Corona, we cover our faces, the expression of our personality – a word derived from the ancient theatre masks (lat. personare – to sound through). It is fascinating what mythologically charged symbolism we are currently dealing with – symbolism that holds a mirror up to us.

(to be continued in part 2)


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Date: May 21, 2021
Author: Axel Voss (Germany)
Photo: Greg Montani auf Pixabay CCO

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